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New Doc Chronicles Queer — or Not — Rock Icon Little Richard

New Doc Chronicles Queer — or Not — Rock Icon Little Richard

Little Richard

The influential early rocker was conflicted about sexuality and religion but made great music, as detailed in Little Richard: I Am Everything.

Little Richard, the pioneering and influential rock-and-roller who was sometimes proudly gay or bisexual, sometimes anti-LGBTQ+, is the subject of a new documentary — and the first official trailer for it dropped Wednesday.

Little Richard: I Am Everything, which was shown at the Sundance Film Festival in January and will be available in theaters and via video on demand in April, chronicles Little Richard’s importance in music, his encounters with racism, and his conflicts about his identity as a Black gay man.

Born Richard Penniman, Little Richard shot to fame in the mid-1950s with recordings such as “Tutti Frutti,” an unabashedly sexy song later covered by white musicians including Elvis Presley and Pat Boone (in a cleaned-up version), “Long Tall Sally,” and “Good Golly Miss Molly.” He had a gender-bending appearance, wearing makeup, a high-rising hairdo, and flamboyant clothing. “His live performances were electrifying,” a New York Times obituary writer observed in 2020, shortly after the musician’s death from bone cancer at age 87.

But he quit rock and roll for five years, beginning in 1957, just two years after “Tutti Frutti” became his first hit. He turned to religion, becoming a Christian evangelist and recording gospel music. Then, in the early 1960s, he was rocking again, opening for the Beatles in the Rolling Stones as well as headlining concerts. He took another hiatus in the late 1970s, then returned to the concert stage in the mid-1980s.

He made wildly disparate statements about sexuality. "If your brother's a homosexual, you must protect your little boy from him,” he told Rolling Stone in 1980. “Homosexuals are sick. And lesbians are sick too. What real woman would want another woman to touch her? She'd feel like something was crawling on her."

In 1995, he told Penthouse, "I've been gay all my life, and I know God is a God of love, not of hate." In 2012, in a GQ interview, he said, "We are all both male and female. Sex to me is like a smorgasbord. Whatever I feel like, I go for. What kind of sexual am I? I am omnisexual!"

Then in 2017, he denounced both homosexuality and transgender identity. “God, Jesus, he made men, men, he made women, women, you know? And you've got to live the way God wants you to live,” he told Three Angels Broadcasting Network, a Christian-oriented outlet.

Little Richard “was way, way good at liberating other people through his example,” queer scholar Jason King says in the documentary. “He was not good at liberating himself.” Fearing hellfire, he renounced his queerness, the film points out.

The doc features footage of Little Richard onstage and giving interviews, plus a wide variety of celebrities commenting on his work, such as Billy Porter, Mick Jagger, Sir Lady Java, John Waters, and Nile Rodgers, along with scholars King and Zandria Robinson. It discusses his influence on many musicians, including James Brown, Michael Jackson, Jimi Hendrix, and Prince. Hendrix was in Little Richard’s band for a time, and Brown performed with some of Little Richard’s backing musicians.

The film “is the enthralling documentary that Little Richard deserves,” Owen Gleiberman wrote in Variety when it was shown at Sundance. “It’s a movie that understands, from the inside out, what a great and transgressive artist he was, how his starburst brilliance shifted the whole energy of the culture — but also how the astonishing radical nature of what he did, from almost the moment it happened, got shoved under the rug of the official narrative of rock ‘n’ roll.”

Little Richard: I Am Everything was directed by Lisa Cortés (producer of the narrative feature Precious and many other films), executive produced by Dee Rees (Pariah, When We Rise), and produced by Robert Friedman, Cortés, Liz Yale Marsh, and Caryn Capotosto.

Magnolia Pictures will release the film for special one-night-only theatrical screenings April 11, followed by additional theaters and a digital release April 21.

Little Richard: I Am Everything - Official Trailer | Documentary by Lisa Cortés | Opens April

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